Any fool can do either. Smart people learn to do both

May 08 2009 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Ask a child to choose between ice cream and chocolate cake. The answer is usually "both". Adults are much the same. We don't want the disadvantages of our choices. We want cheaper and better, cars without pollution, not cars or pollution, more lending and less debt, less risk and greater returns, more time and more money.

Innovation promises benefits without all of the costs. The aim is to have your cake and eat it. If the innovation doesn't overcome some contradiction between conflicting objectives then isn't genius it's obvious. Borrowing to have more money is obvious. Having to pay it back is obvious. Forgetting that you'll have to pay it back is human nature!

The more obvious an idea is the less protection it offers from competition even if it is very popular. The most successful products deliver two benefits that contradict each other.

In India, open heart surgery has been performed without general anesthetic. According to the surgeon leading the operation, "The patient remains fully conscious and talks with the doctors throughout the entire process but does not feel any pain".

As a result, there is no fear of not waking up, it's safe for patients with poor lungs or renal disease, the operation is carried out more rapidly, there is less medicine used, and the patient is discharged within a week. Patients can have cheaper surgery that is also better, faster, safer surgery.

Linux is one of the few operating systems that can challenge Windows. It can challenge Microsoft for two reasons: It is free and it is open. Charging nothing and allowing anyone to customize the product has encouraged many companies to use it instead of paying upgrade fees. Corporate customers do not have to choose between paying a lot and having an operating system that works. They can have both.

Years ago, guests had to bring their own shampoo to a hotel if they wanted any during their stay. They also had to choose between personal service from small hotels and luxurious facilities in large hotels.

This changed when a hotel owner in Canada was unwilling to accept the compromise. He reasoned that it was possible for a medium sized hotel to provide luxurious facilities by providing such remarkable service that guests would pay a greater share of the cost of providing them. This included being the first to provide complimentary shampoo to guests. The Four Seasons Hotel huge global success is the result of his desire to provide both, not either.

The new CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi is a health food enthusiast running the world's second largest maker of sugar-filled carbonated drinks. Since joining, she has expressed her dissatisfaction with the conflict between health and pleasure. She wants to sell food that is "fun for you" and "good for you".

To overcome the contradiction between these two objectives she has introduced health food products and developed healthy versions of existing best sellers. Pepsi's efforts are not just ethical or creative. They are necessary.

Meanwhile, Nestle, a key competitor, is transforming themselves from a food company to a food and health and nutrition company. It is designing and launching foods designed to cure medical conditions. The present includes omega three enriched milkshakes; the future will bring anti-cancer smarties.

Innovators are willing to think widely about alternatives to the obvious. Many of them have backgrounds that make it easier. The man who started the Linux project is the son of radical journalists, grandson of a poet, and a member of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. The leader of Pepsi is an Indian woman leading an American company who played guitar in a rock band and cricket in an era and culture when many viewed physical exertion unseemly for a girl.

Each innovation attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. The mindset behind these innovations does not accept that the first answer is the best answer, because the first answer is usually obvious. The first answer is what you get when you ask "why" things are the way they are. The better answer comes when you keep asking "why" and then ask "why not?"

Asking these questions is what has allowed Honda to launch a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells that produces no pollution. They were not willing to accept the compromise between two opposing characteristics. Asking these questions is what will allow you to see a combination of attractive features and see how to overcome unattractive compromises.

Cirque de Soleil is just circus without cold tents and stale popcorn. Net Jet is just a private plane without the cost of ownership. Be wary of innovation that can't shake off obvious compromises: Concorde was super quick but only for the super rich. New space planes may be able to travel London to Sydney in 2 hours but if it costs the estimated $130,000 the compromise will keep the market small and the service unprofitable.

If you ask these questions, some people will complain. They fear that the answers will cause more work and make their heads hurt. Yet without questions that reveal the connections between things it is difficult to improve anything.

Asking "why" and "why not" will question the assumptions of specialists and experts. This is uncomfortable for people who have enjoyed the comfort of standard answers and the protection of their profession. They may dismiss your ability to understand well enough to have an opinion. It is liberating to those who want to grasp what is really happening and improve it. They may welcome your ability to have an opinion that increases their understanding.

You Can Learn To Think Better!

Learning to creatively problem-solve is not something school teaches us. Creative problem solving is not a subject on many curriculums at kindergarten, college, or university. Your people end up without the thinking skills they need. You can learn to think better. Your people can learn to think better.

The brain is a muscle. More accurately, the brain responds to training very much like a muscle. You pump iron and your muscles grow. You exercise your brain and your ability to think grows. It applies to everyone. Anyone who puts in the effort can improve thinking ability. Whether this is the same as innate 'intelligence' is not very important at a practical level. What counts is how well someone thinks.

It's also an untapped resource. You tend to pay for intelligence and achievement when hiring someone. You benefit only from that person's ability to solve problems related to your business. Someone can be well qualified and lack the ability to solve problems. They can also be poorly qualified and learn how to solve problems that are valuable to your business.

Evidence shows that teaching people that they can improve their thinking will improve their thinking. The belief that effort increases practical intelligence encourages that effort. Providing the opportunity to learn how to exercise the brain and the time to practise exercising the brain leads to even great results.

As a taster, to give you ten minutes of brain training here are a few examples. Try them, share them with your team, you'll find the answers at the bottom of the page...

  1. Can you make eight 8's equal 1000?
  2. If you stand on a hard marble floor, how can you drop a raw egg five feet without breaking the shell?
  3. After a woman was blindfolded, a man hung up her hat. She walked 50 meters, turned around, and shot a bullet through her hat. How was she able to do this?
  4. A man had a flat tire in front of a psychiatric hospital. While changing tires he lost four of the five bolts down a sewer. He didn't know what to do until a patient spoke up. What did the patient tell the man to do?

An experiment with students investigated whether training students to have a growth mind-set would improve kids' math grades. For two hours every week for eight weeks they taught students that brains are like muscles and that everything is hard before it gets easy. They praised effort not intelligence. The brain-is-a-muscle students significantly outperformed their fellow students. Some moved from failure to excellence and sustained that improvement.

Read. Encourage your people to read. Establish a library at home. Use your influence to establish a library or a book club or a book review activity for your team. Many people have never read a business book or a biography. More than a third of people do not read any books. Give people personal copies of important titles. Read with purpose, make notes, share lessons learned, have authors visit the workplace. It increases what people know and improves their ability to think.

It makes sense to include thinking exercise into your personal routine. Introduce thinking exercise into formal and informal training sessions. Build it into meetings – even routine meetings. Don't save up your creativity exercises for twice a year away-days or occasional brainstorming sessions. Use posters in meeting rooms to list different techniques that remind people to experiment. Support puzzle solving competitions, games consoles, brainteasers, crosswords, and anything else that gets people thinking.


  1. 888 + 88 + 8 + 8 + 8 = 1000
  2. Drop it from six feet and the egg will travel five feet without breaking...
  3. The man hung the hat on the end of the gun
  4. The patient advised the man to remove one bolt from each of the other wheels and use them

This isn't crazy. It's crazy smart. If your people are thinking then they'll figure out ways of improving what you do and how you do it.

  • Reverse conventional assumptions - What would happen if?
  • Reconsider aspects of a product one by one – How can this be different?
  • Create mind maps of ideas – How is one idea related to another?
  • Explore replacing, combining, adapting, magnifying, or reducing something.
  • Investigate the forces supporting and resisting an argument or decision.
  • Look into the future – What will the world look like? What does it change?
  • Expect good ideas –Ask everyone questions until there is a breakthrough.
  • Solve problems as a group instead of slavishly ticking off agenda items.
  • Imagine yourself as someone or something else to change viewpoint

So ask questions. Solve puzzles. Read. Think individually and as a group. Your ability to solve problems creatively sets you apart. This ability can be improved.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.